The small things

The Wiggley Tree

When life, art, or a particular work-in-progress seem overwheming, confusing, or especially difficult, I take comfort in these words from Rainer Maria Rilke's wise little book, Letters to a Young Poet:

"If you trust in nature, in what is simple in nature, in the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling. Not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge."

Trust. Simplify. Value the small things. Live fully in the natural world.

Whether it's a life problem I am wrestling with, or a story that will not take shape, or a painting that won't properly cohere, these are -- for me -- the things that help me move forward again, almost always.

Fungi on the foot bridge

Streamside path

Autumn bloom


Finding your voice

Inspiration Board

I've been asked to re-post this piece on creative influence, so here it is. I wrote it several years ago, but still stand by every word....

Reading a recent interview with French book illustrator Didier Graffet, I found myself pausing at this line: "When I was younger and learning to paint, I was inspired by other artists' work," he says, "but now I avoid looking too much at the websites of other illustrators, even though they are good, everything is good, but I want to develop my own imagination."

Today, I'd like to reflect on both ends of that sentence. First, on the ways we shape ourselves as writers and artists by discovering, loving, and pouring over the words and pictures of those who have come before us. And second, on that vital moment when we turn away from others' work in order to travel inward and to map the realm of our own imaginations.

A Devon blacksmith photographed by James Ravilious

Let's start with the first part of the equation: "the ecstasy of influence" (to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Lethem's brilliant essay of that name, which I highly recommend). By "influential art," what I mean is art that we not only admire but take passionately to heart: those life-changing books that we read and re-read, those paintings we look at over and over again -- prompted, I would hazzard to guess, by the feeling that there's a similar kind of magic within us, awakened or strengthened by our deep response to what another hand has created.

Sometimes this influence can be almost too strong and we find ourselves working in another artist's style, not our own -- think of all those imitation-Tolkien fantasy books, for example, or all those imitation-Brian-Froud faeries. And yet, I would argue, imitation is not necessarily wrong if it's part of a learning journey and not the journey's destination. Just as children imitate their elders, the training process for a budding writer or artist does sometimes involve a certain amount of mimicry -- not in order to steal another artist's style or ideas but as a means of developing technical skills that can later be applied to a more personal vision. As long as we don't take this student work as our real work, or attempt to put it before the public as such, then I think there is often no harm in this; on the contrary, it can be an important step toward finding our real work.

Our daughter, for example, trained as chef by apprenticing in Alyn Williams' Michelin-starred restaurant in London. Learning to cook as Williams' cooked, which she was expected to do without deviation, was the first step toward discovering her own personal style of cooking, while learning the technical skills she'll need in order to master her art.

Likewise, when I think back on how I learned to write, or to paint, it seems to me it was a form of apprenticeship too -- although some of the masters I learned from were long dead, and others were ones I met only in the pages of books, never in the flesh. I learned by loving their work, by imitating their work, by thinking and talking and dreaming about their work...until I grew a bit older and enough time had passed that their work had begun to settle inside me, to mingle with my own life experience, and then to alchemize into words and pictures that slowly, slowly turned into a vision and style of my own.

Photograph by James Ravilious

J.R.R. Tolkien once likened fairytales to a soup in which bits of story have been simmering for centuries. Each storyteller dips into that soup, he says, but also adds her own ingredients and spices to make it new for each new audience. I think of "influence" in a similar way: the soup of my creativity is made up of everything I've read, seen, listened to, felt, and experienced -- strongly flavored by all the art that I've loved but stirred together in a way that is inevitably, uniquely my own.

Some of the flavors in my soup are easy to identify: Arthur Rackham, Carl Larsson, and Beatrix Potter, for example, with a heaping teaspoon of Pre-Raphaelitism, a sprinkle of Angela Carter's fairy tales, a dash of Mary Oliver's poetry, a pinch of David Abram's ecological ideas. But other flavors that are just as crucial to the whole are perhaps only identifiable by me: my adolescent obsession with Romeo & Juliet, for instance (I can still recite the entire play by heart); or my teenage devotion to an obscure 1940s utopian novel called Islandia; or my late-20s Anais Nin fixation; or my life-long interest in the women war artists of WW1 and 2 (and would you have guessed that last one?). Scholars, of course, build whole careers on identifying the ingredients of famous artistic soups -- but for artists, our job is to keep adding and stirring, and getting that taste just right.

Hedger's Lunch Break by James Ravilious

The second part of Didier Graffet's comment is important too, however. There comes a time when an artist needs to stop looking at others' work.

This happens periodically throughout life, I think; there are periods of time when it's useful to read, look at, listen to, and otherwise submerge ourselves in the creations of others, and periods when we need to tune it all out in order to fully focus on our own. But what I want to examine in particular is that potent moment in the life of a budding writer or painter when we first deliberately turn our gaze away from the work of our mentors and heroes in order to follow the muse into the landscape of our own imagination.

For any serious creative artist, this act of "turning away" from influence and onto the path of ones own work is crucial -- it separates the men from the boys, as it were; the women from the girls; the student/apprentice from the artist. It is a vital moment in our creative journey -- but here's the rub: it's a moment that can't be forced; it can only happen when the time is right. Some people find their personal vision and artistic direction at a relatively young age; others search it for years; and others still, a lifetime. It comes when it comes, that magical moment when you finally start to understand what you have to say to the world through your art, and the ways that you alone can say it. When the voices of your creative heroes dim and you hear your own voice at last.

Jo Curzon and her Flock by James Ravilious

These days, deep into my middle age, I have been wandering the length and breadth of my inner landscape for so long now that it takes an effort to cast myself back to the early days of my career, when that landscape hadn't fully opened to me yet. I recall it as a fretful period of time, producing work that was earnest but derivative, and I felt myself lost in the forest of artistic influences all around me. I had a deep, urgent, passionate connection to the books and poems and paintings that I loved, and my deepest desire in all the world was to make art like that too. But that art had been crafted from lives, times, and experiences that were nothing like my own; my feeble attempts to walk in the footsteps of William Morris, say, or Vanessa Bell, or Sylvia Townsend Warner, or any of my other creative heroes had value as learning exercises, yes...but as art? Well, no; not so much. Yet it seemed that every new trail that I traveled on in my beloved forest of Mythic Arts had already been neatly sign-posted, and always by someone older, wiser, better, than me. I knew, theoretically, that what I needed to do was go out there and blaze my own damn trail...but I didn't yet know how to do such a thing, and I feared that I never would.

What I didn't quite understand was that I was still in the apprenticeship stage of my creative journey. I was honing my skills, stirring my soup -- which needed more time to simmer, despite my impatience to dish it out and serve it up. I was not only learning how to write and paint, I was accumulating life experience so that once I'd acquired those hard-won skills I'd have something to say with them. My soup was made from good, rich stock, but it needed spices still unknown to me, ingredients I had yet to gather.  And even when those flavors were finally added, it needed time to cook.

Gathering apples by James Ravilious

When I speak with young writers and artists who are eager to find their own direction, to move out of the long shadow of the artists who have gone before them, what they want is the magic word, the key, the secret handshake that will make this happen. And in fact, there is a magic word, but it's not one that anyone really wants to hear, not in this fast-paced, digital, mobile, media-saturated age we're living in, for the word is patience.

Poet Rainer M. Rilke had this to say about time, patience, and the making of art: “Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist's life, in understanding and in creating. There is no measuring in time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confidence in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer.”

Wistmans Wood by James Ravilious

A friend of mine who has worked with some of the greatest opera singers in the world explained to me that in her profession there's a term for ripening as an artist: it's called "finding your voice." It's understood that this can happen fully only with age and experience, and as a result many singers are in their 30s or 4os before they develop into the world-class artists they are destined to be. As literary and visual artists, we too must find our voices, and this doesn't usually happen fast.

No young artist wants to hear this, of course. I certainly didn't when I was starting out. We want to find our vision, our style, our success, our bestseller, our Newbery winner, our American Dream, and we want to find it now. To be sure, there are young prodigies who produce good (or at least popular) work at a tender age, and in our youth-fixated culture they are often singled out for particular attention. But there are many, many more of us whose voices ripen with age as opera singers' do. And by the time we're producing truly good work, we're older and greyer in the book jacket photos; it's impossible to promote us as the latest hot young thing. But that doesn't matter.  It's the work that matters. If it's good, then it is worth the wait.

Archie Parkhouse and his dog Sally by James Ravilious

It is my belief that the muse can't be forced. She comes when we're ready; or when she deems us worthy; or perhaps she just comes when she damn well wants to come. She can't be forced but she can be coaxed, and there are things that make a visitation much more likely: Practicing our craft, mastering our materials, showing up at our desks each day and working. Reading, looking, listening,and experiencing the world around us. We have to breathe the world into ourselves before we can breathe it out in our art; it's a circular motion. Inhale. Exhale. Artists who don't practice the art of living alongside the practice of their craft rarely do their best work, it seems to me. They've forgotten how to breathe.

Part of what we breathe in, of course, is the influence of the work of other artists. There are times, as we've discussed earlier, when this can be a good and helpful thing -- and there are other times when it's not, and it's rather important, I think, to learn the difference. Now I'm not claiming that every artist experiences this distinct passage from imitative/apprentice work to originality -- there are, of course, those blessed souls who seem to step out of the very womb fully formed. But for the rest of us mere mortals, I'd like to speak about my own experience as a developing artist in order to see if I can shed more light on this difficult stretch of the creative journey.

Moving the Sheep by James Ravilious

For me, as a young writer and painter, there came a time when I realized that the voices and visions in my head, created by the books and art I loved, were drowning out the sound of my own voice: so tentative then, so quiet, so unsure of its right to be heard. I remember a long grey time of casting about for a way of making art that seemed truly my own -- not imitation Rackham, not warmed-over Angela Carter, not wannabe Edward Burne-Jones. I was trying each of their styles on like trying on clothes in a vintage shop (something I did a lot of in those days too), looking for a style, an era, a borrowed glamour that would suit me. But unlike a fashion style, one's personal artistic vision is not something you find or chose. You can't shop for it in the marketplace of ideas. It grows within you.

For some people it grows slowly. You can look at their early art or writing and see clearly each small, steady step that has led them out of the shadow of influence and onto the path of their own work. For others, the change happens suddenly, like a lightning bolt from the heavens, usually provoked by an outside circumstance: the discovery of a new medium, for example; the influence of a new teacher or a mentor; or a life event, whether large or small, that pushes the artist in a new direction. I am definitely in the latter camp. It wasn't a slow change for me; I can date the exact period of time when I turned abruptly away from imitating my heroes and started making art that felt like my own. It happened suddenly, with the force of an earthquake. And it happened because I moved to the desert.

3 Amigos by Stu Jenks

Until that time, I'd always faced firmly East, living in New York City and Boston and gazing across the ocean to Europe. Everything I loved -- from the fairy tales I'd adored as a child to the art I poured over, the books I read, the Victorian-era history I devoured, the fiddle-and-harp folk music I craved, the ivy-draped landscape that moved my heart --  was European, primarily rooted in France and the British Isles.

It was sheer happenstance that I traveled West to the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona -- an alien, inhospitable place that held no romance, no allure for me; and sheer happenstance that I stayed there long enough to lose myself to it, both heart and soul. I won't go into the details of how and why that happened here -- I've writtten a whole novel about it, after all. (Well, not a novel about me, exactly, for the protagonist of The Wood Wife is a woman very different from myself -- but a novel about my experience of being seduced by a strange and powerful landscape, and how this can impact ones life and art.)

Secret Place by Stu Jenks

The point that I want to make here is that my muse finally came to me in a place that was stripped of the many familiar influences with which I'd clothed my creative life: the colors and scents of Pre-Raphaelitism, the green moss palette of the English woods. And I think this was no accident. There's something about leaving ones comfort zone and traveling into the great unknown that sets the spark to the tinder of our inner fires, helping us to see the world, and ourselves, and thus also our art, from an entirely new perspective. It was a kind of shock to find myself in love with a whole new landscape, a whole new color palette, a whole new region of history and stories -- and in that shock, the door finally opened into the realm of my true work. It's a realm that has its mossy green corners, yes, and its Burne-Jones rose vines and twisty Rackham trees, but which turns out to hold so much more besides --  like the smell of cottonwood burning in a ceremonial fire on a cold desert night, and the taste of fry bread, and the prickle of cactus, and the tip-tapping of  tiny hooves as javelina whisper through a moonlit wash. And in the stirring together of all these things -- rose vines and cactus, English thyme and desert sage, my broth finally turned into a proper soup: the distinctive taste of the tales I tell and the books I write and the paintings I paint. Mind you, it happened about ten years later that I'd wanted it to happen as an anxious young artist, but it happened, that's the important thing. And it couldn't have done so a single day sooner. The flavors of mesquite, mole, and fire-roasted green chillis were all still missing.

Icon by Stu Jenks

To those of you reading these words who have already found the path of your personal vision, I'd be curious to know when and how that happened. And to those of you still waiting for the pathway to open: Take heart and have patience. It will happen. It may be that a vital ingredient of your soup is still missing, but it will come -- often in some unexpected way. And when it does, I feel honor-bound to warn you, it may surprise you. The work that you find yourself called to do may not be what you ever expected; it may not even be entirely what you wanted. (Hey, I wanted to paint like Burne-Jones or Waterhouse, yet it's bird and fox and bunny girls that are stubbornly determined to come through my hands.) Patrica Hampl expressed it best in this passage taken from The Writer on Her Work: "Maybe being oneself is an acquired taste. For a writer it's a big deal to bow--or kneel or get knocked down--to the fact that you are going to write your own books and not somebody else's. Not even those books of the somebody else you thought it was your express business to spruce yourself up to be."

So go ahead, breathe those influences in. There's nothing wrong with influence, and with finding inspiration in the work of others. But when it's time (and you'll know when it's time), don't be afraid to leave that forest, to face in a new and unfamiliar and maybe even uncomfortable direction, and to listen for the quiet sound of your own voice. You'll find the way, I promise. Just remember to keep breathing.

And then get back to work.

Down the Deep Lanes by James Ravilious

About the art at the top this post: In the field of Mythic Arts, we walk in the footsteps of countless storytellers, writers, painters, and other creative souls who have gone before us. To honor them, I keep a bulletin board in my studio full of works by the men and women who are my muses, much like the bulletin board above. These are just some of creative folk whose work provides daily inspiration (from top to bottom, right to left): Arthur Rackham, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Kay Nielsen. Sulamith Wulfing, Dorothea Tanning, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo's drawings, James McNeil Whistler. Adrienne Segur, Holbein's drawings, John William Waterhouse. Jessie M. King, photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe, Edmund Dulac. Gwen John, Remedios Varo, Susan Seddon Boulet, Lizbeth Zwerger & Beatrix Potter, Frances MacDonald. Vanessa Bell at her easel (by Duncan Grant); photographs of William Morris, Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and Paula Rego at her easel. 

About the photographs: The Dartmoor photographs here are by the great rural photographer James Ravilious (1939-1999), who lived and worked in Devon, England. You can see more of his photographs on the James Ravilious website, and watch a lovely trailer for a film about him here. The Desert photographs here are by Stu Jenks, who lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. Visit the Fezziwig Press site to see more of his beautiful work. All rights reserved by Stu Jenks and the James Ravilious estate.

About the text: The essay above first appeared on Myth & Moor in January, 2011. All rights reserved by the author. 


The work we're called to

King stone at Scorhill

From Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming:

"'Natural forces and human forces have intertwined,' writes geoscientist Paul Crutzen in defining the new geologic epic of the Anthropocene, 'so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.' The enormity of this change in the history of Earth places a new challenge before the human imagination in defining ourselves and the nature of the work we are called to. Communicating information has hardly brought the forces of greed, guns, and gutting of the planet to their knees. Information doesn't change people. Ask the alcoholic or the addict. Sometimes passion changes people. Sometimes empathy does. Sometimes the unconscious yanks you up by your heels, turns you upside down, and gets you straight with reality. Sometimes social cues ripple out from an event or a scientific finding and a cultural norm becomes abnormal. Sometimes the cue is grief. Sometimes the cue is love. Bothe tell us what we can't bear losing and create a resonance that can harden into conviction.

The Walla Brook, Dartmoor

The Walla Brook, Dartmoor

"This brings me to art. Adam Gopnik writes that 'art is a way of expanding our resonances, civilization our way of resonating to those expansions.'  Art has been in the kit of adaptive strategies for at least thirty thousand years of human history. The late Pleistocene. That's when the great animal paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet were made, were carved with mammoth tusks. In truth, art's time horizon is probably much more deeply buried in the mystery of the past. I Ancient hand ax, Norfolk, Englandhave a photograph taped above my desk, a photograph of a hand ax, a hefty tool meant to fit into the palm for carving flesh from bone. This flint is from Norfolk, England, made by Homo erectus some 250,000 ago. The flint has been carefully flaked to create the utilitarian shape, but the maker has fashioned the carving to highlight a fossil mollusk in the center of one face of the teardrop-shaped ax. There sits the small scallop shell, rays fanning out in an arc, as if a little sunrise had been inlaid in stone.

"What hand caught this anomoly in the rock? What hand mastered the craft to chip away the surrounding stone, mindful of the beauty and mystery the fossil shell gave to the object in hand? At least three other hand axes are known from Europe. Archaic hunters spent artful hours getting the symmetry and edge and heft just right. The statement of beauty made by this object tranlates easily across the geologic eras. The skill and love of beauty are all the more impressive, as Denis Dutton illuminated in his rock-star TED talk 'A Darwinian Theory of Beauty,' when one considers that such hand axes were being made by hominid ancestors before language had developed.

Stone wall, between Scorhill & Kestor

Stone wall, Dartmoor

"So what might art, this primal skill set, have to do with our adaptation to climate change? Climate skeptics sway public opinion because they appeal to emotions of fear of change, anger at authority, and denial of grief over loss. What good is a poem in a world of weapons and wounds and wastefulness? Art takes up such feelings as a given. Athletics provide a ritualized way for people to act out violence and competition while doing minimal harm to one another. Art provides a ritualized way to choose beauty over use, to use dissonance as as way to find harmony, to express something in a way that will draw a community together. Art cleanses the spirit of toxins that have weakened it. Art lets one inner life speak to another across vast spans of time and distance. It's not art's task to convey information, though it may interrogate the usefulness or truthfullness of information. Art is empathy. Empathy gets in the way of objective science, which is not to say that a scientist does not feel empathy. But scientists do not cultivate their empathy as an instrument to employ in their professional practice. Art tries to do just that. It weaves connective tissue between fact and feeling, self and world, individual and collective good. Art in a time of radical loss is an elegy. It teaches us how to mourn, whether in the context of family loss or the larger losses brought about by the extreme sport of anthropogenic climate change.

Moorland sheep

"Art can use the power of grief to speak to the depth of one's love for what we would protect and sustain. It can expose the failure of the old myths and raise appetite for new myths that can guide us."

Bog cotton on the moorWords: The passage above is from "Owl Watching in the Experimental Forest," in Zoologies by Alison Deming Hawthorne (Milkweed Editions, 2014), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from The Cleansing of the Knife by Naomi Mitchison (Canongate, 1978). All rights reserved by the authors. Horizontal pictures: The king stone at Scorhill; the Walla Brook; stone walls and sheep in the Dartmoor hills. Vertical picture: Paleolithic hand ax, flint knapped around a Cretaceous fossil of the bivalve Spondylus spinosus, found in West Tofts, Norfolk. (Photographer unknown.)


Making sense of the more-than-human world

The Winter Guest by David Hollington

From The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram:

"A story must be judged according to whether it makes sense. And 'making sense' must be here understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and the ears to their real surroundings, tuning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin. To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one's felt awareness of the world. It is to make the senses wake up to where they are."

After the Prophet by David Hollington

Central image from Debt of Love by David Hollington

"Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth -- our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human."

The Rapture/Wake Up by David Hollington

"The practice of realignment with reality can hardly afford to be utopian. It cannot base itself upon a vision hatched in our heads and then projected into the future. Any approach to current problems that aims us toward a mentally envisioned future implicitly holds us within the oblivion of linear time. It holds us, that is, within the same illusory dimension that enabled us to neglect and finally to forget the land around us. By projecting the solution somewhere outside of the perceivable present, it invites our attention away from the sensuous surroundings, induces us to dull our senses, yet again, on behalf of a mental idea.

"A genuinely ecological approach does not work to attain a mentally envisioned future, but strives to enter, ever more deeply, into the sensorial present. It strives to become ever more awake to the other lives, the other forms of sentience and sensibility that surround us in the open field of the present moment. For the other animals and the gathering clouds do not exist in linear time. We meet them only when the thrust of historical time begins to open itself outward, when we walk out of our heads into the cycling life of the land around us. This wild expanse has its own timing, its rhythms of dawning and dusk, its seasons of gestation and bud and blossom. It is here, and not in linear history, that the ravens reside."

Healing Place by David Hollington

The marvelous art today is by British painter David Hollington. He studied at Harrow School of Art and at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, and is now represented by The Rowley Gallery.

"Animals and birds are messengers, healers and protagonists within the narrative structure of my paintings," he says. ""I feel closely connected to forms of Shamanism where a channel is opened between the human world and the world of animals. I can't control this process when I am drawing, objects that are undetermined, shift and change shape until I begin to understand what the message is that I am receiving. At this point a key animal will appear and take the lead, this will be one of my trinity - the fox, the hare or the owl (often white). Once the animal or bird has taken the lead it will engender the possibility of including a mortal or god, sometimes a Hindu or Celtic deity. Then the tone of the painting will crystallise, this can take a considerable time, sometimes months, but once it does I begin to see in colour and feel the time of day the story is taking place."F

Follow this link to read his wonderful meditation on the fox in folklore, literature, and art.

Medea by David Hollington

The Garden by David Hollington

Words & Pictures: The passage above is from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996), a book that has had a strong impact on my work since I first read it upon publication, and that I return to often. I highly recommend it, along with David's follow-up book, Becoming Animal. The titles of David Hollington's beautiful pictures can be found in the picture captions. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Morning on Nattadon Hill

Queen of the Hill

I set off on a walk with Tilly, my head crowded with thoughts and worries about all of the things I must get done today. I carry two notebooks, a thermos of coffee, a pen, reading glasses, a research book. I intend to be productive,  to "use my time wisely" by taking my work with me up the hill. By the time we have reached the summit, however, my thoughts have slowed, my words are drifting away like the clouds over the fields. I sit with my coffee, notebooks untouched. This, too, is part of the work process, I'm reminded. Sitting in silence, receptive, eyes wide, heart open. Imbibing the world.

"The whole culture is telling you to hurry," says novelist Juan Díaz, "while the art tells you to take your time."

The tension between these two different modes is a constant part of a writer's working life.

"Always listen to the art,"  he advises.

The wind rises. I'm listening.

From Irish Fairy Tales illustrated by Arthur RackhamIllustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).


Ripening

The Bumblehill Studio

It's a clear, crisp day at Bumblehill, the ground soggy with recent rain and the air tasting of early autumn. The sun warms up my studio, the birds are loud in the woods behind, and the hound and I are savouring these open-door days while we still have them.

"I think of my studio as a vegetable garden where things follow their natural course," said the Spanish surrealist artist Joan Miró. "They grow, they ripen. You have to graft. You have to water."

So true.

Tilly in the studio garden

On some days the work hours fly by. On others, I toil and sweat over every word on the page, very mark on the canvas.

"All we have," said Edward Abbey, "is the beauty of art and nature and life, and the love which that beauty inspires." 

That's enough. That's everything.

The studio's plum tree

Blackberries

Plums and blackberriesRelated post: The Folklore of Food


The Night Sea Journey

The Fisherman by Edmund Dulac

"The creative act is a letting down of the net of human imagination into the ocean of chaos on which we are suspended, and the attempt to bring out of it ideas. It is the night sea journey, the lone fisherman on a tropical sea with his nets, and you let these nets down - sometimes, something tears through them that leaves them in shreds and you just row for shore, and put your head under your bed and pray.

"At other times what slips through are the minutiae, the minnows of this ichthyological metaphor of idea chasing. But, sometimes, you can actually bring home something that is food, food for the human community that we can sustain ourselves on and go forward.

- Terence McKenna

The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

"The artist who goes into himself most deeply -- and it is a painful journey -- is the artist who touches us most closely, speaks to us most clearly.' "  - Ursula K. Le Guin

"There's stories and then there's stories. The ones with any worth change your life forever, perhaps only in a small way, but once you've heard them, they are forever a part of you. You nurture them and pass them on, and the giving only makes you feel better. The others are just words on a page."  - Charles de Lint

Beauty & the Beast by Edmund DulacThe art above is "The Fisherman," "The Little Mermaid," and "Beauty & the Beast" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953).


Art slips through

Path to the Commons

Encounter on the Commons

This week, while the UK government begins to negotiate our exit from Europe -- a severing that so many of us do not want -- here's a passage from Jeanette Winterson's fine essay, "What is Art For?" (2014):

"We live in a money culture," writes Winterson. "[There is] a general public feeling that if our economy is in good shape, the world is in good shape. And governments are praised not by their health and education provision, or their welfare record, or by employment or foreign policy, but by the robustness  -- or not -- of the central economy. Capitalism says that society must become richer and richer, that whatever the cost, economies must grow. Once we subscribe to money as the core value, what follows is a deregulated, 24-hour society, where the right to sleep, the right to peace and quiet, the right to human-friendly work patterns and human-friendly hours all become far less important that the right to make money.

"Against this golden calf in the wilderness, where everybody comes to buy and sell, art offers a different rate of exchange. The artist does not turn time into money; the artist -- whether writer, painter, musician -- turns time into energy, time into intensity, time into vision. And the exchange that art offers is an exchange in kind -- of energy for energy, intensity for intensity, vision for vision.

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"Can we make the return? Do we want to?" she asks. "When people complain that art is hard work, they really mean that our increasingly passive entertainments do not equip us for the demands that art makes. Art is not a passive activity. We have to get involved. Imagination always means involvement, and as soon as your mind is open to a different level of seeing, thinking, hearing, or understanding, you start asking questions. Money culture hates questions.

One of several foals born to the herd this spring

"Part of the triumph of capitalism has been to make itself seem natural -- not only the best way to live but also the inevitable way, the only way. Art asks questions. I don't mean directly, or politically, though that is sometimes the case. I mean that art, by its very nature, is a question. A question about who we are, about what things matter.

Foals

"Art stands as an eternal question mark at the end of money's confident rhetoric. This is partly because artists themselves cannot work in the way money culture demands -- that is, to order, with guaranteed results in a specified time -- and partly because art just can't be controlled. It doesn't fit in with any economic models. It can't be predicted. It can't be done away with or phased out or put on growth hormones. So either we ignore it and say it's not essential, not important -- might have been once, but isn't now -- or we indulge it and see it as a kind of charming charity, a sort of ornament to life the way that ladies were once ornaments to gentlemen.

"But art is not an ornament, or a charity, or a waste of time. It is a completely different way of looking at the world. At the core of art is an intensity of experience totally lacking from a money culture, whose purpose is to dilute every other value to below the value of itself. Art wants you to concentrate; money wants you to dissipate. Far from being about hard work, a money culture is about incredible waste of effort, as people labor for no other purpose than to make more of the same: money. You can waste your life, but money has to be saved -- because money is precious and life is not.

foal

"But what can art do for us, in a world of corporate culture? Isn't it just temporary relief, or escapism?

"When I sit down to read a book without interruption or to listen to a piece of music at home or in the concert hall, without interruption, or to look at a painting, without interruption, the first thing I am doing is turning my gaze inward. The outside world, with all its demands and distractions, has to wait -- not something it likes doing. As I turn my attention away from the world, I draw my energy away from the world. I'm not passive, but I'm in a state of alert rest, where the artwork can reach me with its own energies, very different energies to the getting and spending going on all around me. The creativity and concentration put into the making of the art-work begins to cross-current into me. It's not simply about being recharged, as in a good night's sleep or a vacation; it's about being charged at a different voltage.

Foal

"When I read Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Willams, I'm not just reading a poet's take on the world -- I am entering into a completely different world, and I don't mean a fantasy screen. I mean a world built from the beginning on different principles. William Carlos Williams wrote: It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.

Foal

"Art's counterculture, however diverse, holds in plain sight what a material world denies: love and imagination. Art is made out of a passionate, reckless love of the work in its own right, as though nothing else exists, and an imaginative force that generates something new out of disparate materials....

"For the maker, and later the reader or the viewer or the listener, there is no obvious reward. There is only the-thing-itself, because you want it, because you're drawn to it. It speaks to the part of us that is fully human, the part that belongs fully to ourselves, not mechanized, socialized, pacified, integrated, but voice-to-voice, across time, singing a song pitched to the human ear, singing of destiny, of fear, of loss, of hope, of renewal, of change, of connection, of all the subtle and fragile relationships between men and women, their children, their country, and all the things not measured or understood by the census figures and gross national product.

Foal

"Art slips through, and us with it -- slips past the border police and the currency controls, to talk as we've always wanted to, about matters of the spirit and the heart, to imagine a world not dominated by numbers, to find in colors and poetry and sand an equivalence to our deepest feelings, a language for who we are."

Foal

Words: The passage above is from "What is Art For?" by Jeanette Winterson, published in The World Split Open (Tin House Books, 2014); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: A quiet morning's encounter with our local herd of Dartmoor ponies. They often come down from the moor to shelter their foals on the slope of the village Commons. A related post: Art, the Marketplace, and Narrative Loss.


In the space between the imaginary
and the concrete

Ponies 1

From "305 Marguerite Cartright Avenue" by Chimamanda Adiche:

"As a child, books were the center of my world; stories entranced me, both reading them and writing them. I've been writing since I was old enough to spell. My writing, when it is going well, gives me what I like to describe as 'extravagant joy.' It is my life's one true passion. It is, in addition to the people I love, what makes me truly happy. And like all real passions, my writing has enormous power over me. There is the extravagant joy when it is going well, and when it is not going well -- when I sit in front of my computer and the words simply refuse to come -- I feel a soul-crushing anxiety, and I sink into varying levels of depression.

Ponies 2

Ponies 3

"Most times, in response to this, I read. I read the authors I love -- the poems of Derek Walcott, the prose of John Gregory Brown, the poems of Tanure Ojaide, the prose of Ama Ata Aidoo -- and I hope that their words will water my mind, as it were, and get my own words growing again. But if that doesn't work, I take to my bed and eat a lot of ice cream....

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

"I write because I have to. I write because I cannot imagine my life without the ability to write, or to imagine, or to dream. I write because I love the solitude of writing, because I love the near-mystical sense of creating characters who sometimes speak to me.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7

 "I write because I love the possibility of touching another human being with my work, and because I spend a large amount of time between the imaginary and the concrete.

Ponies 8

"My writing comes from hope, from melancholy, from rage, and from curiosity."

Ponies 9

Words: The passage above is from an essay by Adichie published in The World Split Open (Tin House Books, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is by British novelist and poet Helen Dunmore, from her collection Glad of These Times (Bloodaxe Books, 2007). Dunmore recently died of cancer at much too young an age, which is a great loss. All rights to the text above reserved by Ms. Adichie and the Dunmore estate.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies who have strayed down from the moor to shelter their foals on our village Commons.


We are the words, we are the music

Stray sheep

Etchings by Bill Yardley

Last week we discussed Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" (an essay I recommend reading in full) -- examining the roles of experience and imagination in the creation of fiction.

There's one more passage I'd like to share. It begins with a quote by Virginia Woolf, from a letter to her friend Vita Sackville-West. "Sackville-West," Le Guin explains, "had been pontificating about finding the right word, Flaubert's mot juste, and agonizing very Frenchly about syle; and Woolf wrote back, very Englishly:

Sheep etching by Bill Yardley'As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.'

Sheep and lamb, reunited.

"Woolf wrote that seventy-five years ago," notes Le Guin; "if she did think differently next year, she didn't tell anybody. She says it lightly, but she means it; this is profound. I have not found anything more profound, or more useful, about the source of story -- where ideas come from.

"Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention -- beneath words, as she says -- there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer's job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find the words."

So simple. So true.

The gate to O'er Hill

Le Guin adds this at the close of the essay:

"Prose and poetry -- all art, music, dance -- rise from and move with the profound rhythms of our body, our being, and the body and the being of the world. Physicists read the universe as a great range of vibrations, of rhythms. Art follows and expresses those rhythms."

Sheep in the shade

Old stone wall

I'm reminded, in turn, of these words from Woolf's luminous essay "A Sketch of the Past":

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we -- I mean all human beings -- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."

A stream on the Commons

Hound and stream

Waiting

Words: Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" can be found in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014); it also appears, in an altered form, in Le Guin's essay collection The Wave in the Mind (Shambhala, 2004). Both books are recommended. The first Woolf quote can be found in The Letters of Vita Sackville West & Virginia Woolf, edited by Mitchell Alexander Leaska (Cleis Press, 2004); the second in Moments of Being (Mariner Books, 1985). 

Pictures: The etchings above are by Bill Yardley (1940-2012), an artist inspired by life on his Warwickshire farm.

All rights to the text & images above reserved by authors & artists, or their estates.